I've finished my first semester of graduate school at the University of Waterloo where I study quantum computation. It's been a ride; let me tell you about it.
A little background
Prior to August 2020, I was a full time software developer at Overleaf, and before that I did my bachelors at NYU in mathematics and physics. After 2.5 (lovely) years as a developer I decided it was my time to make graduate school a reality and applied to 15 schools. After a few rejects, and much consideration I decided on U Waterloo for many reasons, but that's for another time. I also decided to continue working for Overleaf part time to help me make a few more bucks, because being a grad student is pretty destitute. Being out of academia for 3 years certainly made me have my doubts if I was going to be able to succeed at school. I had done some data-science work as a developer, but I hadn't really done much of any math, and definitely no quantum mechanics since my undergraduate.
Before starting school I took a month off work to mostly relax and decompress from working, but did also start prepping a little bit for school. Mostly just some elementary reading on quantum computation (I had never formally studied the subject mind you!), and a little refresher of some basic quantum theory. Starting out, I was mainly worried I wouldn't be as good at math as I once was, but I fell quickly into the swing of things.
For my first semester I took three courses:
- Numerical Analysis
- Advanced Quantum Theory
- Introduction to Quantum Information Processing
It seems like most graduate students at U Waterloo take two, but being an international student, the university did not allow me to be a teaching assistant for this semester, so I had a few extra hours per week and thought I could squeeze in an extra course. I chose these three courses for specific reasons:
- Numerical analysis because of the programming component and that's what I've been doing for the past few years, hence making it not too hard a course
- Advanced Quantum Theory (which is a cross listed undergrad/grad course where the grad students have an extra project to do at the end) because I hadn't looked at anything quantum for the past 3 years and needed a refresher
- Quantum Info. Processing because that's the first course in the quantum info track I'm on and it would help me get into research faster
Looking back on the semester, I feel like it was a great selection of courses; it did what I intended, which was help me transition from a working life, to that of a student. Three courses was a bit much, especially on top of working part time (8hrs/week), but it was manageable. I'm certainly looking forward to having a smaller workload in future semesters.
Day to Day Life
Two of my classes (quantum theory, and quantum info) posted recorded lectures on youtube, and in numerical analysis we had live lectures over zoom. All three courses used piazza as a Q&A forum. The youtube lectures were great, but left a lot to be desired in terms of social interaction. I didn't really meet anyone in my quantum theory course, and only managed to meet some friends in quantum info because we set up a study group (shout out Chelsea and Wilson). In numerical analysis the professor had a 15 minute period before class where he encouraged people to “show up and hang out” and chat mostly about non-math stuff, but anything really. As a new student who knew almost no one, I really appreciated it as a way to see some faces and maybe start the process of a friendship.
Most days I would watch one or two lectures, and then primarily work on homework, and oh my god was there a lot. I did a total of 24 problem sets (which you can checkout here: https://natestemen.xyz/latex/), of which many of the quantum theory ones were pretty tedious. Other than the few tedious calculations I learned a lot from homework, but 3 classes didn't leave me with much time to really dive into anything very deeply (even though I wanted to). That said, this was my first semester and was intended to help get me settled and adjusted. In the future I'll be able to give more time to topics I find interesting.
Overall, working remotely for the past few years prepared me well to get through some of the struggles of online classes (e.g. I really don't have a problem speaking up in online meetings), but learning can be hard when you aren't surrounded by people who are doing the same thing. This was by far the biggest struggle of the semester. Having friends you can talk to about things your learning is so helpful in processing, and digesting material. Big ups to Kevin (also a first year math grad student) who chatted with me a bunch through the semester.
Compared to Work
At the start of the term, I was so happy to be a student again. Life as a student is pretty different from that of a working person; mostly life is much simpler. Problems I faced at work don't often have nice succinct solutions, but rather require analyzing trade-offs and understanding how decisions will affect other arms of the organization. That said, studenthood is much more manicured, and the experience isn't as “disheveled”. Problem sets almost always have “correct” answers, and professors lead you along from one topic to the next. Life is a lot more decided than it was for me when I was working. This “simplicity” was fun and exciting in the beginning, and still is to some degree, but it becomes tiring too. The lack of autonomy can sometimes be a drag, but I remind myself I only have to do 8 courses (3 of which are now done!) before I get to focus on research and have more autonomy there.
The biggest suck about school life is by far the exams. Working was very rarely stressful for me, but exams are stress multipliers. I don't think grading is ever very accurate, but exams must be worse than everything else. Taking an exam for the first time in 3 years wasn't a fun experience and brought back all the memories we drop when we nostalgize about being a student.
Since grad school has been on my to do list for a long time, I definitely poured myself into it fully this semester. That said I also tried to recognize the importance of doing non-school things and taking breaks from work. I definitely don't feel burnt out, but I could do slightly better at this next semester. Here are some highlights from non-school life:
- read a non-fiction book
- read some poetry
- wrote some poetry
- got outside a good amount in the beginning of the semester
- cooked a lot of yummy food
- saw my family (and a few friends) (yes, safely)
- listened to a lot of good music
Some things I could do better with moving forward are
- getting outside and getting exercise regularly (god I miss rock climbing with my friends)
- spending more time with my partner, preferably without a homework assignment in hand
- spending less time in front of the computer
- I'm sure many more, but I'll focus on these for now.